As Marion resident Ellen Greenwood prepares to celebrate her 90th birthday on July 8, she looks back on her life, recalling many wonderful memories of people who have touched her life and experiences she has had, and she realizes she is a truly blessed woman.
Greenwood was born in 1927 to Britton and Lora Heath Johnson and lived in the Seven Mile Ford community for most of her young life. Her mother was a young widow who had lost her first husband in a farming accident. She had a son, Jack Osborne, who was just a few years old when she met Britton Johnson and later married him on Sept. 1, 1926. Ellen was born the following year.
“Mom and dad moved in with my Grandfather Johnson. Dad’s mom was already dead at that time. Mom was taking care of grandpa, who had had a stroke and was bedfast. He died in June of 1927 and I was born less than a month later. My father had a leaky heart valve. At that time doctors didn’t realize that, so every time he went to the doctor, they gave him high blood pressure medicine. Every so often he would be so weak he couldn’t go to work. He was mostly a farmer for other people. If he didn’t work, we didn’t have a place to live. So we moved quite a bit through their life. They moved several places in Seven Mile Ford and around there,” Greenwood said.
One of the houses her family lived in on two separate occasions was near the railroad bridge and trestle at Seven Mile Ford that was built in 1896 and still exists today. The house was photographed by New York City photographer O. Winston Link and included in his book America’s Last Steam Railroad Steam Steel & Stars published in 1987. A copy of that photograph hangs on Greenwood’s living room wall. The original is in the O. Winston Link museum in Roanoke.
“When I was very small, the first time we lived in that house there by that bridge in Seven Mile Ford, I must have been about seven. That bridge fascinated us. You got so used to the trains going by, you didn’t pay any attention to the trains. At night you were usually in bed when the last one went by. It shook you, you know. It was a fun place to be because it was beside the river and beside the railroad bridge. The memories I have from living there were so special,” Greenwood said.
She remembers when Link took the famous photograph. The year was 1957. She was married with three children and living in Marion. She and her children had stopped by her mom’s house at the train trestle for a visit and Link was sitting there with her mother.
“Mr. Link had the house lit up inside and had spotlights on the bridge. That was the picture he made famous in his book. At the time Mr. Link was just someone I met. I never knew he was making history. You never realize that because you are just living,” she said.
Greenwood has many fond memories of her days growing up in Seven Mile Ford.
“Horty Barker, the blind balladeer, became famous because he was up the Whitetop festival when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was up there. Horty got invited to come to Washington, D.C., to record some of his music because they felt like Horty Barker played the music that had been brought from Scotland, Ireland and England. It was true to our heritage,” Greenwood said.
She recalled a time when Barker appeared in front of her home.
“I looked up. We were just children out in the yard playing. We could play in the road then or down in the river. There wasn’t much traffic. We looked up and here came this man walking down the road from Route 11 with a little dog by him. He was walking with a cane. We went to tell mom. Mom looked out and said, ‘Oh, that’s Mr. Barker.’ He lived over near St. Clair’s Creek and was walking to see friends of his, a blind man walking like that with his little dog with him. He got in front of our house and mom said, ‘Hello, Mr. Barker.’ He said, ‘Lora, it’s so good to see you.’ I’ve never forgotten that. He knew her voice. His memory was fantastic,” Greenwood remembered.
The Johnson family was poor, Greenwood said, but she and the other children didn’t know it at the time.
“Dad was struggling through that time, through the ‘30s, the big crash in ’29. He was working for Mr. Bob Dungan for 50 cents a day. You usually got a toy at Christmas. You got a pair of shoes for Easter and kind of grew into them by the time school started. When I think back, the thing is, yes, I was born what we call poor today and everything. I didn’t realize we were poor because most of my friends, most of the kids I went to school with, lived in a house similar to what I did, a small house too little for the number of people in it with chickens and dogs running around in the yard and that kind of thing,” Greenwood said.
She has a copy of a receipt from 1925 when her father was working as a sharecropper for Anna Dungan, raising cabbage.
“Dad raised the cabbage, harvested it and took it by wagon to Rural Retreat to the railroad station to sell it. He got $8 and something for it. His share was like $2 and something for the summer’s work. If the factories already had enough cabbage, they wouldn’t buy it. It’s so interesting what folks went through,” Greenwood said.
She also has records of the hours her father worked when he was working on Bob Dungan’s farm.
“Mr. Dungan kept down how many hours dad worked. In one case, dad had used Miss Rhoda, Mr. Dungan’s horse, and I think he had charged dad 25 cents. It’s really interesting to look back and find something like that. It’s a treasure to find something like that,” she added.
Greenwood met Col. Cary Ingram Crockett, father of Lucy Herndon Crockett, and owner of the famous Preston house in Seven Mile Ford, at the Seven Mile Ford Post Office.
“He asked me if there were any wildlife around. I thought that was kind of a crazy question. We’ve got rabbits and groundhogs. The first deer that I ever saw, I was 13 years old. You didn’t see one running around in your backyard like you do today,” Greenwood said.
From that unusual encounter with the colonel, Greenwood became acquainted with him and his daughter Lucy. She recalls sending him a graduation announcement when she finished high school.
“He gave me a lei that was made out of shells. I still have it. He got it in the South Pacific,” Greenwood said.
“The colonel, he was a very, very nice man. His wife was very reserved and quiet as women were in those days. Lucy wasn’t the kind of person that you walked up to and said, ‘Lucy, how are you?’ If she had something on her mind, she kept it. She was very straightforward. She was actually a recluse,” Greenwood recalled.
Greenwood’s older brother, Jack Osborne, fought in World War II.
“When Pearl Harbor happened, I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. I was over at Saltville with some neighbor friends. We came back and were playing Rook at the house at Seven Mile Ford where they all lived. All of a sudden all the announcements came on the radio. At the time, it didn’t cross my mind, ‘Hey, my brother is 18 years old. He will have to go to war.’ When I went home, mom and everybody were sitting around this squeaky radio listening to every word Roosevelt said,” Greenwood remembered.
Her brother Jack joined the Air Force in October of 1942. He retired after a 20-year career.
Greenwood’s brother is mentioned in the book Star Dust by Captain Leonard Swedlund. He was top turret gunner and engineer of the Star Dust and the B-17 Bomber Moonglow, which led the massive 800 bomber raid over Berlin on March 6, 1944.
Since Greenwood was corresponding by letter with Swedlund’s tail gunner, Grendall Hawes, she is also mentioned in the book. A section of the book beginning on page 217 is devoted to Jack. Greenwood is credited with leading the author to Jack’s children, who provided photos and documents about Jack’s military and family life.
“Jack was my hero and I still miss his great smile and teasing laughter,” Greenwood said, adding that Jack was on the Star Dust when it crashed. He survived a total of 35 missions and was named to the Dirty Bastards Club. Jack retired from the Air Force in 1964 and died in 1981.
Greenwood’s other brothers and sisters included Edward, Charles, Janie, L.B., Norman and Brenda. L.B. and Brenda are the only surviving siblings.
On Sept. 1, 1945, her mom and dad’s anniversary, Greenwood married Howard Eugene “Gene” Greenwood. They had three children, John Howard, who was named after his father and his great-grandfathers, Donna and Karen. John died in 2001. Greenwood and her husband adopted her husband’s nephew, Jody, when he was five years old.
“Jody was the son of my heart. He’s my other son,” she said.
She has three grandchildren, six step-grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, four step-great-grandchildren, one great-great-grandchild and two step-great-great-grandchildren.
Greenwood graduated from Chilhowie High School in 1944 when she was 16 years old. She has had a long working career, which began with her first job at the Burlington Hosiery Mill in Chilhowie and included working for Harwood, Rose’s department store, the March of Dimes, the Census Bureau, and Huff Cook, Aid Association for Lutherans and Settler’s Life, selling insurance. She retired at 70.
She has been active at Ebenezer Lutheran Church for many years, having taught Sunday school for 50 years and served in several other positions. She held a variety of offices in the Business and Professional Women’s club, has been a member of the Salvation Army for many years and still volunteers to ring the bells each November, was active in the Smyth County CB Radio Club, completed Civil Defense classes in the event of an atomic bomb attack, worked with Smyth County Hospice and was a regular bowler for many years.
As she turns 90 years old on July 8, Greenwood will celebrate her birthday with her children and grandchildren and her many friends at a reception on Sunday, July 2, from 2-4 p.m. at VFW Post 4667 in Marion. She is looking forward to her special day and the many hugs and memories to be shared.
As she looks back on her life, she recalls the joy she found in simple pleasures as she worked hard to make a way for herself and her family.
“The memories you have and everything, I thank God for being a person that didn’t have everything handed to me. Everything I had and my family had, we worked for. That’s something to be proud of. From a little girl with holes in her shoes to being a mother and working hard, when I look at what my kids have done, I’m so proud of them and what they have accomplished,” Greenwood said, adding that her life has been rich with the many wonderful friends she has made and all of the people who have touched and been a part of her life.